An age-old question. Through centuries, men and women have repeatedly asked, challenged and reflected on this thought-provoking question.
A historical understanding tells us that men are naturally born to provide, and women are instinctively more empathetic and nurturing.
This has formed our traditional framework of gender roles, as we know them to be today. However, this understanding has evolved greatly as the world sees gender roles in a different light today.
Women have proven to be just as successful, competent and capable (if not better, in some cases) than their male counterparts. We have seen substantial evidence that women can take on male-dominated roles, across disciplines and industries alike.
In a way, the world is slowly beginning to view gender role reversals as a norm, and not a niche.
Yet the question remains – are we equals?
The woman leader
I’ve always wondered what this phrase means. I mean, we never hear anyone say “The Man Leader”. It makes you think about how we identify leaders and good leadership – do we recognise leaders objectively by their character, achievements and ability to drive change, or does gender colour all of this?
At Leaderonomics, we truly believe that the recipe for great leadership includes being able to excel in the four areas of mastery (read more here) – personal, business, functional and leadership.
When one understands each of these masteries and can clearly see their interdependence and connection to each other, the question of how to identify great leadership becomes irrelevant as the individual starts to live and breathe leadership, instead of aspiring to reach it from afar.
Working with a stellar editorial team, predominantly led by outstanding women, I for one, don’t believe that gender should influence leadership capabilities.
If we truly must go down this road, then history is full of examples of outstanding women who have led in their respective fields with great stride.
Let’s take a look a little closer to home, and get to know three unconventional, inspiring women leaders in Malaysia.
Datuk Faridah Merican – the First Lady of Malaysian theatre
At 75, Datuk Faridah Merican still inspires through her artistic direction and acting. In the early 1960s, she worked with Radio and TV Malaysia as one of the pioneers in the developmental years of Malaysian advertising. Today, she sits on the board of directors for Ogilvy & Mather, among other organisations.
In 1989, Faridah and her husband, Joe Hasham, established The Actors Studio to promote professional theatre in Malaysia. When a flood destroyed its premises, they went ahead and set up the KL Performing Arts Centre. This artistic and creative space is a testament to her commitment and dedication to the creative arts.
Among the many accolades that Faridah has received over the years are the Outstanding Achievement Award (Arts, Culture and Entertainment) at the Inaugural Malaysian Women of Excellence Awards in 2014, the BOH Cameronian Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Ahli Mangku Negara in 1973 (to name a few).
Despite not having any formal training in acting, Faridah remains, to this day, one of the strongest voices championing the Malaysian creative scene and continues to inspire young aspirants in the country.
Datin Paduka Mother Mangalam Iyaswamy Iyer – a voice of hope for Malaysia’s underprivileged
She is our very own Mother Theresa – a woman who has dedicated her life to the welfare of the poor and underprivileged in Malaysia.
Mother Mangalam, as she is fondly known to many, is the president and co-founder of the Pure Life Society, a place that many orphans and displaced children call their home.
The society was set up in 1952 together with her spiritual mentor, Swami Satyananda.
After World War II, Mother Mangalam was deeply affected by the poverty and hardship that she saw around her. The suffering and pain of her fellow human beings turned into a strong will to do something that will alleviate all the negativity she could see and feel.
Her drive to make a difference was so strong that she resolved not to marry and instead dedicated her whole life to the upliftment and improvement of the underprivileged in the country.
Even today, just ten years shy of a 100, Mother Mangalam is still very much a beacon of love, dedicated to her life’s purpose.
In 2010, she received the Merdeka Award for her outstanding contribution in promoting the welfare of the underprivileged and fostering national unity.
For generations, she has impacted and improved the lives of the many children who embrace the Pure Life Society as their home, and continues to do so today.
Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman – the Malaysian astrophysicst extraodinaire
A Malaysian trailblazer in astronomy and astrophysics, Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman is Malaysia’s first astrophysicist. In the early 1990s, Dr Mazlan set up Malaysia’s national planetarium and subsequently the Malaysian astronaut programme in 2003.
Some of the outstanding leadership roles she has been entrusted with over her years in the field of astrophysics include the honour of being appointed as director of the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in Vienna and setting up Malaysia’s National Space Agency.
Now in her early 60s, Dr Mazlan’s journey in astrophysics began when she received the Colombo Plan scholarship to read physics at the University of Otago, New Zealand. It was also here that she became the first woman to be awarded a physics doctorate by the university’s Physics department.
An inspiring woman who is still making waves in the industry, Dr Mazlan also played a role in ensuring that the launch date for our Malaysian satellite in 2007 was timed to coincide with the country’s Merdeka golden jubilee year celebrations.
Watch a video interview we had with Dr Mazlan here:
Equalising the leadership gap
Let me take you back to the first question again – are we equals? The three great women cited here are just the tip of the iceberg as far as Malaysian women leaders go. We have incredible women leading across all industries and landscapes, from sports to law and order, and from education to politics.
Perhaps, it is about time we celebrated them just as much as we celebrate the outstanding men who lead in these fields too.
While each gender brings different strengths and leadership qualities to the table, we can conclude that gender alone does not determine the kind of leader one is or can be. The ability to make a lasting difference, even after we are gone, is probably one of the best measures of effective leaders and leadership.
If we can choose to see beyond gender and focus our attention on the impact leadership brings, we will be able to set in motion a powerful new wave of leaders for future generations.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook says it best –
Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.